Pinning Kenshi down and giving it a proper description is a rather hard thing to do. On its face, it’s an open world action RPG set in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max world that interbred with some old Akira Kurosawa movies. But that would be a gross reduction of what is one of the most unique gaming experiences I have had in a long time.
For starters, it is ridiculously open-ended; there is no storyline to follow at all and you can basically play as almost anything. Do you fancy being a merchant or a thief? A bandit-ninja or a Samurai-enforcer? Or is farming and building more your thing? Perhaps I could entice you with some open warfare and invading city-states? All of this and plenty more is possible in Kenshi. What’s more, it tells you almost nothing about how to do this upfront: it is a learn as you go kind of experience.
When I first started out with my human, one of four races, I had no idea of what to do or where to go. You just plop down at the gates of one of the cities, with some simple tutorial messages as your only company. I figured I’d go to the bar and see if I could learn something from an NPC in there. I met an old man called Hobbs that spoke of some old cave or artifact somewhere up north. Alright, my first quest, I thought, the naive child I was. I bought some provisions and headed out with my new companion. Almost immediately I ran into some starving bandits that wanted to say hi by clubbing the life out of me with iron pipes as if I were some plump seal on the shores of Norway. While lying there bleeding in a recovery coma, another band of friendly slavers walked by. They healed my wounds only to promptly rob me, and put me in chains. I could have continued the game at this point and led a life as a slave, and it might even be a good and safe way to train some of the many skills that you have. The slave life didn’t particularly strike my fancy though, so I decided to restart.
Attempt two. Met Hobbs again but decided to wait for a moment before heading out. The settlement got attacked and a bunch of bandits ended up dead on the streets. The ninja guards made short work of the bandits that gave me such trouble earlier. Helped myself to some free gear from the knocked out or dying scum. With boosted confidence and some new ‘shoddy armor’, I decided to head out again. Met another group of people, a battle ensued and I went down within a minute. I was in a recovery coma again and Hobbs had lost an arm and was bleeding out with no chance of recovering since my other character would not wake up in time to bandage him. Restart. Again. Frustrated. However, on my third attempt, I really started to appreciate what Kenshi was offering.
Kenshi is hard, unforgiving and it doesn’t hold your hand in doing anything. On my third attempt, I discovered that you can mine copper and iron for a decent profit and started doing that. By looking through the menus I read about how to improve stats and skills and started training them. Though above all, I started to see how Kenshi is an extremely system driven game as opposed to the mostly scripted fare we are offered nowadays, and that it can be truly rewarding if you give it time.
Gameplay in Kenshi is a bit hands-off. You can control your characters as if it was Baldur’s Gate, but all battles and conflicts are handled by the AI. When combat is initiated, it is purely stats and skills that determine the outcome, with gear acting like modifiers. What you as the player can do is micromanage formations and run away. Think more RTS than RPG. Likewise, when doing tasks and training, it is very passive and you mostly just wait to see a meter fill up like some old MMORPG from, well, 12 years ago.
Around the 6 hour mark, some of the emergent systems started to make themselves known. Outside of town, there was an outpost at which I sometimes used to trade ore and scraps for food and other useful things. When I returned one day, the ninja guards were running around like crazy in a scene of utter carnage. There were blood and bodies everywhere. The outpost had been raided and I had lost one of the places I used for trade. Stumped, I returned to town to sell and buy what I could there. After that, I waited a while to see if the outpost would be repopulated. It was not, but the guards left so I was free to loot the place myself. For me, this is what makes Kenshi appealing — stuff just happens. Sometimes it is unfair as heck but sometimes a guard or something big and bad will die in front of you, giving you access to some new shiny toys for free.
Additionally, for as unforgiving as the game can be, it is actually quite difficult to straight up die. You will get knocked out a bunch and sustain multiple wounds but you don’t take that final dirt nap easily. Als,o for being bandits, the enemies aren’t very good at looting you nor your settlement. This ensures that even though you have plenty of setbacks, you always gain something, even in defeat. Taking damage improves toughness and defense for the characters. When you heal up you gain more health, and so on. If you died every time you get knocked out or had your settlement been burned down with each raid, Kenshi might have been unplayable. Instead, you constantly have something to strive for, a motivation to get better, even when things go to hell.
Kenshi has me conflicted, to say the least. It is full of tedious busy work which seemingly is only there to make things take a long time. Mining takes forever to do when you start out but even when you progress you will suffer severe penalties if it is dark outside or you are overburdened.
The first weapons you acquire suffer horrible penalties to attack, making it even harder to hit stuff. Things are simply set to be quite complicated and take a long time to do, which is realistic I suppose, but it really requires your dedication as a player. Out of the 40ish hours I have spent in the game so far, mining has easily taken up 10-15 hours alone. The other time has been mostly spent on building an outpost.
The base building is actually surprisingly well done and, I would say, essential to enjoying Kenshi at all. In a game without a story or ending for that matter, It serves the purpose of giving you a goal to move towards and something to do with the resources you will be gathering. You can build houses, mines, walls and crafting stations, almost as if it were an RTS game. Aside from the wall building, everything places well and is easily understood. The only real gripe with the building mechanics themselves is that building walls can be a nightmare. Getting the last piece of the wall to fit together without erroring-out can be an exercise in hair-tearing frustration.
You could, of course, skip the whole settlement part and opt for just wandering around, robbing and stealing your way to glory. However, as everything in Kenshi is so dangerous to go toe-to-toe with, I think such a path would be exceedingly hard. Personally, it would also feel lacking in goals and things to do. Besides, once you have your own settlement, the robust and enjoyable task system comes into play in earnest.
The system is elegant and simple to understand. If you shift-click on an activity, it becomes a job for that character or group of characters. Click on additional tasks and it will be added to the list of tasks to do in a prioritized list. So you can tell a guy to mine stone and once a container is full of stone, he will go tend the farm, while they grow he will go and build something that needs building. Once the first container with stone is no longer full (because someone else took and used the stone) he will return to the mine. After a while, the whole outpost runs a bit like an ant colony with your characters running back and forth doing what they are assigned.
Of course, a settlement comes with its own set of headaches — nothing in Kenshi is easy or simple. Raids become a constant threat and you start attracting the eyes of the local authorities. It also piles onto the time sinks in the game. For instance, it is almost impossible not to build two settlements, since you need one in order to advance in the tech tree. This means that you don’t have access to walls and defenses from the get-go, making settling far away from cities a death sentence. So you need a settlement to tech up and then you go somewhere else to build the one you really want or need.
Graphically, the game looks, well 12 years old. Textures are quite muddy and the geometry is also simple and offers little to wow or dazzle you. Likewise, music and sounds are lackluster and sparse. That said, the art and design have a certain pull to it that I can’t quite pin down. It is reminiscent of old fantasy movies from the 80s, movies like Conan the Barbarian or Krull and their ilk. Movies with a lot of deserts, sparse sets, and that iconic howling wind. Kenshi has a charm to it that somewhat makes up for the technical shortcomings. The simple graphics also allow for large battles to take place, though they will slow down even a powerful PC.
On the technical side, Kenshi is fairly stable but does have some strange AI bugs. Sometimes when my settlement was being raided, the enemy AI became stuck in a loop and would run between buildings until they starved or were killed off. Buildings can be hard to navigate as the game sometimes decided that you cannot see through the walls. It’s all quite easily fixed: the AI needs a nudge to get out of the loop and if you focus on one character, the buildings show up fine. However, it can cause some added frustration to a game that is already asking that you put up with a lot.
I ended up quite liking Kenshi. That said, it is a very hard game to recommend. Many people will bounce right off it and never look back. It comes with a very steep learning curve and will fight you all the way on the road to having fun. However, it is very satisfying to accomplish just about anything in Kenshi. The first time I repelled an assault on my settlement, I was jubilant. The first time I managed to kill an armored warrior, I was ecstatic. Seeing your settlement and group of people grow is also strangely satisfying, in part since it does take a really long time to build and run but also since they look kind of cool. Kenshi also has a ton of downtime as your characters heal up, mine or do something else that is automated. Having something else to do, like listening to podcasts or audiobooks while playing, is highly recommended. I should hate Kenshi for all its flaws and scruffiness, but I don’t. The fact that I was, in the end, able to have this much fun with the game is quite remarkable.
Decidedly not for everyone but for being in development for twelve years, it's surprisingly good. Kenshi has a unique style with anything you accomplish in the game feeling like a true achievement.